I Drink for a Reason, By David Cross, Grand Central Publishing (August 2009)
David Cross has been a lightning rod for public opinion since 1995 when he first broke out with Bob Odenkirk in the critically acclaimed television show Mr. Show with Bob and David. Since then he has drawn accolades, both for his stand-up comedy and for his role as the deeply closeted Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development. He has also drawn criticism: some from fans for “selling out” by doing broad family comedy, such as his role in the CGI kid’s movie Alvin and the Chipmunks, and some from people who dislike him personally—New York Press once put Cross on their “50 most loathsome New Yorkers” list, calling him “condescending, meandering, undisciplined and...not funny.”
Cross’s stand-up is, often, very funny. His on-stage persona makes the best of a penchant for bitterness and bluster: he plays the Id for a certain type of bohemian outsider—the intellectual who grew up poor enough to feel marginalized by both wealthy liberal culture and the general conservative hue of mass media—and he deftly skewers many low-class liberal bugbears: the hypocrisy of religion, the shallowness of celebrity pop culture, uptight puritan ethics, and national politics, among other things.
In one great stand-up bit, he describes a trip he took to the Nevada desert. A group of people were regularly gathering where the Virgin Mary was supposed to be making appearances. The Virgin, predictably, failed to show up, and everyone was disappointed. Cross describes walking back to his car when suddenly there she was, standing before him. Cross begins to break down and weep as he tells how she appeared, and looked at him, and then proceeded to chase him down and rape him. The joke is surprising, rude, and funny, and it brings the audience up against Cross’s (and by extension the rest of our) darkest ideas about power and religion. It works on many levels.
I relate this because David Cross’s first collection of new and previously-printed humor writing, I Drink for a Reason, is not only condescending, meandering, and undisciplined, but most unforgivably, it is unfunny. And for a comedian like Cross, who clearly has ability, to churn out a book so empty of humor, so cheap with its shots, so openly stingy, demeaning, defensive, and pointless is a travesty of satire.
For wit, Cross substitutes odd semantic juxtapositions. One list of “random thoughts” (I’m not kidding) begins: “Eggs are the only food that are both nutritious and mathematically impossible!” It gets less funny from there. For insight, he substitutes anger. For shock value, he makes poop jokes. An ability to shock is a comedian’s stock-in-trade, but Cross’s low-brow sex-and-scatology is so overused and unimaginative that it fails to even mildly offend. A joke about Rupert Murdoch crapping on a reality show contestant sounds old even as Cross introduces it.
Cross’s choice of targets is oddly banal. Instead of addressing anything that feels current, or relevant, he returns over and over to such tired fare as reality television, Judaism, Bill O’Reilly, Fundamentalists, Mormons, and Jim Belushi. Even then, there might still be laughs to be wrung from these subjects, but Cross is so uninventive and mean in his attack that his jokes have the opposite of the intended effect, inspiring pity more than a sense of derision or humor.
For instance, his satire of O’Reilly (a man that Stephen Colbert has made a brilliant career out of mocking) is nothing more than a juvenile revenge fantasy. Cross has O’Reilly barking stupidly before admitting to being a monster. Then O’Reilly is put through the paces of a sexual disgrace not even specific to his well-known peccadilloes (and why not? O’Reilly’s loofah-based interests are infamous enough). The result is demeaning and sad, as Cross turns O’Reilly into a pitiable human puppet, doing and saying things one could never imagine from the real person.
This may be one reason the book fails so severely. A story, told in front of an audience, about the imagined humiliation of a despised public persona can be very funny. There is an air of transgression that comes from saying something very rude out loud. Everyone in the room is aware they are in public, and the anxiety of listening to something deeply uncivil (especially something you secretly wish would happen) causes laughter. But reading it on the page, in the privacy of your own home, the effect is different. In this setting, it’s not transgressive, not rife with tension. If the writing feels untrue or isn’t witty, then it seems lazy.
And if the writer cannot mock himself along with his targets, then his jokes are especially disdainful, which is another reason why the book fails: Cross is unwilling to turn his icy, sarcastic glare upon himself, or examine his own contributions to the lazy, angry society he so lazily, angrily complains about. And there is much for Cross to examine. He displays, for instance, an incredible petty streak. Three times he uses the book to pursue vendettas, once against a blogger who panned one of his performances, once against a Playboy magazine editor who edited one of his humor pieces, and perhaps most unavoidably, he reprints his “Open Letter to Larry the Cable Guy”—revisiting a semi-famous feud they had several years ago.
That letter, which had seemed so funny and cutting when it was first published on Cross’s website, becomes the low point of the book. When it appeared online in 2007, and their arguments were still fresh, it felt off-the-cuff, gutsy, and daring: a funnier, less-successful comedian mocking a much more successful one who had sold out with catch phrases and product tie-ins. Reprinted in the book, years after the fact, it becomes embarrassing, like the guy at the end of the bar who keeps talking about this one good punch he threw in an alley fight, back in the day.
Cross once told the L.A. Times he made more money from Alvin and the Chipmunks than he did from all his other projects combined. That’s probably a good enough reason for him to have been in the movie. And maybe money is a good enough reason for him to have written this book. Given how uninspired the results are, though, the book isn’t worth the cover price. Cross shines far better in his stand-up comedy, or on Mr. Show. Or better, yet, on Arrested Development. That has all the David Cross we need.